New Aruba technologies let enterprises use wi-fi to extend 5G service indoors

The new Aruba Air Pass service and Air Slice lets enterprises leverage existing wi-fi access points to bring 5G cell service indoors, in lieu of spending on new infrastructure.

As 5G service rolls out across the country, organizations with large spaces -- think stadiums or hotels -- want to ensure their customers can get seamless connectivity once they walk indoors. However, cellular signals are often spotty indoors, due to a range of factors like changing building codes and construction materials. Aruba on Monday is announcing a set of technologies designed to help enterprises address this challenge without making anymore infrastructure investments. 

The new Aruba Air Pass is a new roaming service that extends the reach of 5G networks inside with existing wi-fi access points. Air Pass recognizes when a user's mobile phone is in the vicinity of an Aruba enterprise wi-fi network and automatically onboards them to the network using SIM credentials. A user can continue to host a phone call or send text messages without having to enter a username and password or go to a guest capture portal. 

Meanwhile, the new Aruba Air Slice is a wi-fi 6 technology that dynamically allocates radio resources -- such as time, frequency and spatial streams -- to guarantee performance for latency-sensitive applications like AR/VR, Zoom or Slack. 

The new services are designed to help enterprises take advantage of 5G services in a cost-effective way. An enterprise can use Air Pass to leverage the existing wi-fi infrastructure to bring 5G cell service indoors, in lieu of spending on indoor small cells or distributed antenna systems (DAS).

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"5g is still being rolled out by telcos, and the technology itself is continuing to evolve," Dave Chen, senior product marketing manager for Aruba, said to ZDNet. "The challenge a lot of telcos are facing... is providing end users with granular information on what types of experiences they can deliver. We're starting to see question of what does 5G mean for end users."

That's especially true, Chen said, for an organization such as a school, which may have limited technology funding -- they could spend it on connectivity, or they could spend it on new technologies for students. 

There are a couple technologies that make Air Pass possible, including new 5G standards that support aggregation of both 3GPP and wi-fi radio access networks (RANs). This allows the roaming service to take advantage of wi-fi RANs, rather than having to rely on infrastructure like indoor small cells or DAS. 

Additionally, Air Pass is enabled by Passpoint, a standard created by the wi-fi Alliance that lets mobile devices automatically authenticate on enterprise wi-fi networks using their cellular credentials. Passpoint is supported on nearly all mobile devices. 

So as long as an enterprise customer has an Aruba wi-fi network, they don't need any extra equipment. Aruba says there's already nearly 20 billion square feet worldwide served by Aruba Air Pass-ready infrastructure.

The service is managed by Aruba, and Aruba works with carriers on the back end to deploy it. Air Pass is currently in active trials and should be available later this year. 

Meanwhile, Air Slice is designed for enterprise customers that want to ensure carrier-grade quality for certain applications. It takes advantage of the benefits of wi-fi 6, such as multi-user MIMO, to guarantee radio resources for specific applications, including custom applications. It's also able to identify specific types of traffic -- for instance, it can distinguish between a Skype video stream and Skype messaging. 

Aruba, which is part of HPE, is announcing the new services in conjunction with a set of other 5G announcements from HPE. First, HPE is introducing a new 5G core stack for telco customers. It's an open, cloud-native, container-based software stack that provides the core network capabilities required to deliver new 5G services to subscribers and enterprise customers.

Additionally, HPE is rolling out enhancements to the HPE Edgeline, a ruggedized, general purpose platform designed to power Virtual Radio Access Networks (vRAN) and Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC). These provide telcos with an IT service environment at the cellular network edge.

The telco edge-optimized HPE Edgeline EL8000 is available now, while the 5G Core Stack will be available globally in the second half of 2020 through HPE GreenLake as-a-service.